Monday, June 30, 2014

Discovering Musicians: Jennifer Higdon

One of my frequent commentators has posed a challenge, or at least so it appears to me. He says, "I have yet to hear of a good living female composer." Actually, I think I have already talked about several good living female composers, but without singling them out as women. This was in my series of posts on Hilary Hahn's recording of newly-commissioned encores, of which about half were written by women.

While at Curtis, Hilary met and studied with the composer Jennifer Higdon, whose violin concerto she also recorded.

Pay no attention to the video as it has nothing to do with the audio track, which is of Higdon's Violin Concerto. Higdon was awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in music for that piece. Incidentally, when I put up my final post on the album I posed a few questions about the commissioning process and Jennifer Higdon herself left a comment answering them. Nice gesture! She even complimented this blog. Higdon has also won a Grammy for best contemporary classical composition in 2009 for her percussion concerto.

So I think that the task of finding a good living female composer has been achieved very easily: Jennifer Higdon, currently professor of composition at the Curtis Institute. The Wikipedia article assembles a nice paragraph of praise for her work:
Higdon's music is popular with orchestras and audiences and the League of American Orchestras recently reported Higdon as one of the most performed living American composers.[6] "Higdon's music is lithe and expert," wrote Robert Battey of the Washington Post. "Jennifer Higdon's vivid, attractive works have made her a hot commodity lately," wrote Steve Smith of the New York Times. "Jennifer Higdon is in my assessment one of the greatest of the newer composers," wrote Steven Ritter of Audiophile Audition.[7] Of her Concerto for Orchestra, Richard Morrison in The Times(London) stated that "it is rare to witness a big new orchestral piece being acclaimed as Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra was cheered on ... The most impressive aspect is the panache with which a huge orchestra is deployed ... This colourful, ever-changing instrumental panoply is doubtless one reason why the work makes an instant impression ... Higdon's work is traditionally rooted yet imbued with integrity, freshness and a desire to entertain. A promising mixture. More, please."
 Let's listen to some more of her work. Here is her Percussion Concerto dating from 2005, played by the University of British Columbia Orchestra:

And here is her Concerto for Orchestra, dating from 2002 played by the Atlanta Symphony:

She doesn't just write concertos. Here is an excerpt from a piece she wrote for the Lark Quartet titled, "An Exaltation of Larks":

And here are "Trumpet Songs" for trumpet and piano:

So I think that she easily qualifies as a good, living composer. Does her music rise to the level of greatness? We will have to check back in fifty or a hundred years!!


Rickard said...

Sounds good, especially the intro to the Concerto for Orchestra. I will try to listen in more detail when I have time.

Unknown said...

Dear Bryan,

I would like to email you, as you may be interested in what I do in teaching composition. Where can I write?

All the best,

Elvio Cipollone (

Rickard said...

I've listened to all the examples and it's certainly good music.

Bryan Townsend said...

Well, sure. I knew several women composers in graduate school and never got the sense that they were less capable than the male composers. I think that the striking shortage of women composers in music history may have more to do with the social and cultural incentives and strictures than anything else. If there are simply no models and no positions for female composers then there are no incentives to become one. There were incentives, especially since the 19th century, for women to pursue careers as opera singers and the result was a lot of fine female opera singers.

Rickard said...

It's possible but I don't think there is a bias today (I don't know of any actual bias but I'm of course not really familiar with the whole music academy & music performance World). Yet, for some reason we "NEED" more women composers according to certain people and we "NEED" them just because they are women. There is always talk about how there should be more women in this and this (often top positions in societies, never bottom positions like garbage collector, miner or construction worker). In the case of classical music certain organizations are trying to somehow dig up woman composers and make a more "equal" split in the music performed (one wind orchestra in Sweden went as far as choosing music by woman composers as 50% of their performance output). The reality is of course that there were few woman composers and a even fewer good ones (there are both good and bad composers in general of course). The case might be that women, just like in the case of science & engineering are not that interested (although I don't know the exact situation (i.e. what percentage of composers nowadays are male or female) so shouldn't be making assumptions).

Bryan Townsend said...

Actually, I suspect there are all sorts of biases operating and always have been. In some places there are biases against white men, in others against Asians. I think that these things are inevitable. But biases should be avoided in all professional and legal contexts for all sorts of reasons. The idea that we can eliminate biases by simply setting up quotas is one of those dumb ideas that seems to never die. My favorite counter-example is to say why don't we demand that 90% of all basketball players be white to reflect the proportions in society? Or that 13% be Asian (or whatever the percentage in the general population is)?